Celebrating ‘Snapshots’

Posted by on Feb 03 2012 | History, Other

The following essay is from the recently published exhibition catalogue Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard. The book is published by Yale University Press, in association with the Phillips Collection, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The catalogue is edited by curator Elizabeth Easton with contributions from leading scholars, including George Eastman House Curator of Technology Todd Gustavson. His entry, Innovative Devices: George Eastman and the Handheld Camera is excerpted below. Reproduced by permission. 

In the digital age, making photographic images is so very simple—requiring about the same effort as throwing a light switch—that we do so almost without thinking about it. It’s easy to take for granted a process that seems to involve nothing more than pressing the button and instantaneously viewing the picture. But photography has not always been a simple practice. For nearly a half century after its invention, the medium was almost exclusively the domain of professionals. Not until the 1880s, when George Eastman’s Kodak camera and other instruments intended for the consumer-photography market set the cornerstones of amateur snapshot photography, did the camera begin to become a ubiquitous device.

The photographic process, announced in 1839 by the Frenchman Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, captured and fixed the images that were viewed through a camera obscura. This was accomplished through a combination of mechanics (the camera), optics (to improve the image), and chemistry (to sensitize and process the image). Over the next forty years, improvements made to all aspects of the process—cameras, shutters, lenses, and chemistry—led to cheaper and simpler image-making, generating a growing interest for the nonprofessional photographer.

The technicalities of early photography required the photographer, first, to sensitize the media and then to process the image immediately after exposure. Although this system was fine for the professional, it was generally too cumbersome and time-consuming for most amateurs. On April 13, 1880, George Eastman, of Rochester, New York, was issued U.S. Patent No. 226,503 for his machine to coat gelatin dry plates. The following January, with the financial backing of Rochester businessman Henry Strong, he formed the Eastman Dry Plate Company, becoming one of the first commercial producers of light-sensitive photographic emulsions. With reliable plates now available, companies worldwide began manufacturing cameras designed specifically to use them.

Although they were convenient, dry plates had several drawbacks: they were both fragile and heavy to transport. Lightweight, flexible support for photographic emulsion had been investigated starting in the mid-1860s, but without much success. George Eastman aimed his emulsion-making skills at this target and, late in 1884, introduced Eastman’s American Film, which used Rives paper—both flexible and lightweight—as support for its emulsion. Yet because this material was not transparent, during processing the images had to be stripped from the paper support, adhered temporarily to glass for printing, and finally, stored on a “skin” made of a semitransparent plastic. To complement his American Film, Eastman and a partner, William H. Walker (a pioneer builder of cameras with standardized parts), designed and patented the Eastman-Walker Roll Holder, which attached to most existing cameras to allow the use of roll film. To reflect its new product line, the firm changed its name to the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company. Around this time, Eastman built an emulsions-manufacturing plant in London to avoid spoilage problems he had experienced a few years earlier with film that had been shipped across the Atlantic. From early on, he planned to produce and sell his products worldwide; the London plant was the first of many to be located in major European cities.

All things considered, Eastman clearly needed a new product.  Introduced to the public in the September 15, 1888, issue of Scientific American, the Kodak was Eastman’s first successful amateur camera.

These earliest Kodaks and the models developed over the next decade or so represent the beginning of snapshot photography. The snapshot, a term borrowed from hunting, is one taken quickly and without careful aim. Amateur photographers of the time met with derision for this type of shooting; nevertheless, the snapshot meant lots of exposed film and big business for photographic suppliers. Soon, the many new products made for the amateur market eclipsed those made for the professional, revolutionizing the industry. In 1892, to better connect the success of its cameras to their manufacturer, the Rochester firm changed its name to the Eastman Kodak Company.

The handheld camera loaded with roll film was a collector of moments, facilitating the preservation of visual impressions. Many artists frequently used the camera as a sketchbook, a tool for quickly transcribing a likeness that could later be “developed” into a more finished work. They were drawn to its potential for capturing the fast-paced, ever-changing nature of modern life and culture. An early “mobile device,” the handheld camera advanced a fresh way of seeing based on a new way of measuring time. Although the snapshot was not exactly an instantaneously produced image, it represented shorter pieces of time than previous photographic technology had allowed. And the camera’s waist-level perspective—differing greatly from that of the human eye—is readily apparent in many works of art. Frequently, the results were unconventional images that reflected the poet Charles Baudelaire’s influential characterization of modernity as “the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent.”


Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard exhibition opens tomorrow at The Philips Collection in Washington D.C.


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    Todd Gustavson is the curator of technology at George Eastman House, working with the collection for more than 20 years.

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